“George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead”
Stars: Simon Baker, Dennis Hopper, Asia Argento, Robert Joy and John Leguizamo
Writer: George Romero
Dir: George Romero
“Zombies, man. They creep me out.”
Let’s set the stage, shall we? It had been 20 years since Uncle George decided to revisit his creation — the living dead. 1985’s “Day of the Dead,” for most people, was the closing chapter of Romero’s trilogy of flesh-eating undead. In those 20 years, countless rip-offs, spoofs, and other varying incarnations of zombies have either graced the silver screen or squandered space on video rental store shelves (or tricked you into adding them into the Netflix queue, nowadays).
It was a glorious day when I went stumbling around the numerous geek-run movie websites back in 2004 and learned Romero was going to take on zombies once again — and this time on a larger scale, both monetarily and talent-wise. He would have big studio backing, a larger budget than he had ever been given, and could hire a handful of well-known (and even cult-status) actors.
“Finally,” 2004-Rob thought, “we will get a real apocalyptic zombie film.”
Well, sort of.
2005’s “Land of the Dead” was the result of several ideas and germs that never fully developed from “Day of the Dead.” Romero wanted to have an army of zombies, trained to take out other zombies in “Day.” He develops an army of zombies in “Land.” And, as with the original script for “Day,” the zombies in “Land” are much smarter than the headshot-fodder we’ve come to know. Led by a gas station owner/attendant, zombies in “Land” learn as they go. They’re tired of being slaughtered by the well-organized scavengers who come by now and again looting supplies to take back to Fiddler’s Green — a city surrounded by water where the poor and blue collar live on the streets while the privileged live in a swank mall/apartment complex, complete with all luxuries of the “old world.”
The organized scavengers, led by Riley (Baker) and Cholo (Leguizamo), travel around on motor bikes and a rolling fortress: Dead Reckoning, a massive $2 million armored mobile transport, fully equipped with .50 caliber machine guns, short-range missiles — and fireworks to, you know, put on a show for the zombies (seriously — zombies seem to like fireworks in this movie). After a raid on a nearby town for supplies, the zombies, led by a leader dubbed in the credits as “Big Daddy,” decide to follow the looters back to Fiddler’s Green and launch a primitive assault on the island city.
Much to the zombies’ advantage, Cholo and Riley have both called quits to their scavenger days, calling the last supply raid, the one where the zombies get the gumption to follow them, their final one. Riley has decided to take a gassed up car he purchased and head north into Canada, where there is nothing (he said it, not me — but it’s true). Cholo has decided he would take his earnings for taking care of Kaufman’s (Hopper) “garbage” (i.e. people he does not want in his little paradise). When Kaufman decides Cholo isn’t worthy to live among the wealthy, he casts him out, but not before Cholo takes Dead Reckoning and threatens to destroy Fiddler’s Green with a couple missiles. Riley is bribed by Kaufman to recover Dead Reckoning and stop Cholo.
Yup, pretty simple plot there. This would have been a Charles Bronson or Chuck Norris movie 20 years ago, sans zombies. But the zombies, and the threat that they are “evolving,” adds to what little drama there is to be had here. The real show-stopper with the zombies happens about halfway through with a horde of them realizing water is not a boundary. Those brief moments are pretty awesome to look at. And, of course, there are the numerous feasting scenes. Where Romero once used to hold back until the climax, he decided to inject some spurts prematurely all over this one, giving the special effects team free reign to come up with zombies eating and ripping people apart that had not been seen by audiences before.
While “aw, man, did you see that?” is sometimes fine by me, I wanted more with this outing. I wanted characters I cared about. While Asia Argento is very easy on the eyes, her constant battle with her Italian accent in delivering American dialogue was distracting. Riley’s friend Charlie (Joy) was amusing at times, but by 2005 I was tired of what I call the Giovanni Ribisi School of Acting: act mentally handicapped, garner audience sympathy. Yes, Riley seemed to be a great guy, but his desire just to head north and get away from it all never made me want to care if he lived or died, no matter how many minor plot elements were thrown in to make him appear as a “good guy.” Leguizamo just seemed to be around for a paycheck. So did Hopper.
So, Uncle George gets a big budget, some B-list talent, and free-reign … and he punted it. Now I know why Romero prefers to direct independently — he can’t contain himself.
Much like another George I’ve come to malign.
Romero Rules Followed: He created a couple new ones here, mainly the zombie learning curve. In this film, zombies evolved faster than apes in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But, I’ve referenced zombies using tools before in a Romero film, so, for the sake of argument, these suckers are still in the Romero realm.
Gore factor: Goriest of the Romero flicks thus far, although I was not a fan at all of some of the CGI effects. Stay practical with my zombies.
Zombies or Wannabees? Zombies
Classic, fine, or waste of time: Fine
Additional comments: This is the first Romero film to call the undead “zombies,” while the preferred term in the film is “stenches.” While the “thinking zombie” aspect is a bit intriguing, it was much too much for this outing. It should have been slowly introduced over the next couple of films (yeah, Romero has been cranking them out as of late), which would have probably made this one slightly better and made the two that followed a bit more bearable. Instead, Uncle George is just all over the place. And he lost the one thing that made me care — well-developed characters.
I like caring about zombie films. I wish George did this time around.